The Bridegroom Who Never Came

Back in January, before all of this happened, I found myself wondering about baseball players who had simply disappeared. Players often fade from our memory, but thanks to the archival work of organizations like SABR and the Hall of Fame, and websites like Baseball-Reference and Retrosheet, rarely are they ever lost entirely. Baseball is comfortingly recurrent, comfortably concrete — to have a player go missing, their status unknown, struck me as likely to be a uniquely destabilizing and impactful event.

Of course, a lot of things have changed since January. We now find ourselves in a situation wherein Major League Baseball itself is suspended in a state of uncertainty, and many minor league teams are unsure whether they’ll continue to exist next year at all. I abandoned my search for the missing of baseball history in the face of the Astros cheating scandal, which at that point seemed much more pressing; now, when baseball is missing and we are missing baseball, it seems like the right time to pick it back up. 

Many of the stories that I found were comedies; some were tragedies. Some were political, some were trivial, and some were, ostensibly, romantic. All of them, I think, are worth exploring. Without baseball games to attend, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on our relationship with the sport, its stories, and the people who play it.

The story that follows is the earliest that I found, coming from late 1892 in St. Joseph, Missouri, the town that was once the jumping-off point for the Wild West, and that has hosted professional baseball since 1886.

The 10th of December, 1892, was to be a joyous occasion in the town of St. Joseph, Missouri. It was the day Miss Edith Mack, daughter of well-known local real estate dealer and capitalist Henry Mack, and the man with whom she had fallen in love at first sight — one Joseph H. McDonald, baseball player — were to marry.

McDonald, previously a resident of nearby Atchison, Kansas, had played for the local nine that summer. Miss Mack watched him from the stands. As Avril put it, can I make it any more obvious? The St. Joseph Herald wrote, rather poetically, of their blossoming romance: “… her eyes always followed the form of McDonald as he dashed madly around the diamond or cut the weeds with a three-bagger.” I can find nothing that would indicate how many such three-baggers the dashing Mr. McDonald successfully executed, but we can assume that it was an attractive number. From the field, the pair took their love around town, and could often be spotted sitting by the lakeside together, living out the last days of their “dream-like summer.”

It came as no surprise, then, when Mr. McDonald and Mr. Mack made their way, that fateful Saturday noon in December, down to the St. Joseph courthouse to procure a marriage license. The license was signed and paid for, and everything was in order right up until the evening. Around supper, with the wedding guests assembled, McDonald excused himself from the house. He never returned.

Why did McDonald run? The Herald story said that his friends and family had no idea, and he didn’t appear to be at his home in Atchison. A thorough search of St. Joseph failed to reveal his whereabouts, and within a few days, McDonald’s disappearance became a matter of significant interest. He was a public figure of sorts, Mr. Henry Mack had apparently planned to gift him enough stock to start a grocery business, and the breakdown of the idyllic, baseball-centric romance between the two was catnip for the town’s newspaper writers. The above-mentioned Herald article, which ran on December 14, took up a good full column, and the sensation spread across the state over the coming weeks, becoming a news item in dozens of Missouri and Kansas papers. As late as December 23, the Albany Ledger ran an item about the baseball player who fled his young bride-to-be, and was still “not to be found.”

And for a time, as far as I could figure, that’s where the story ended. I couldn’t turn up any mention of Joseph McDonald, baseball player, after that December. Presumably, as the Ledger had written, McDonald was simply not to be found after that night — a mystery never to be solved.

As it turned out, the tale of the runaway baseball groom was never a mystery at all. On December 15, 1892 — the very day after their big story on McDonald and Miss Mack was published — the Herald published a letter to the editor from Mr. Mack himself. It is too good a letter to truncate, so I present it to you here in full:

Editor Herald:–The item published in yesterday’s Herald regarding the postponed marriage of Edith Mack to Joe McDonald was expressed in a great many more words than was really necessary. It is true that they were engaged to be married, but poverty overtook Joe and he was compelled to flee to parts unknown, until he can make a living for a refined lady like Edith Mack. He will have to go home and sit on his dear old mother’s knee for a few more years. I want the public to sympathize with Joe, but as for Miss Edith, she will always have a good home. Henry Mack

Despite the incredible passive-aggressiveness of this letter — “a refined lady like Edith Mack?” “go home and sit on his dear old mother’s knee?” — it seems to have gone unnoticed by the papers that continued to propagate the story of McDonald’s inexplicable appearance. And equally unnoticed went the story’s eventual conclusion: a small item published in the Atchison Daily Champion on January 14, 1893 — exactly a month after the story of McDonald and Mack first captured the public imagination.

By Mr. Mack’s telling in the December item, McDonald had been “compelled” to leave town due to poverty “overtaking” him. In the wedding notice, though, McDonald was “suddenly called away on business.” (He also changed from Joseph H. McDonald to Joseph A. McDonald, though that was likely just an innocent transcription error.)

What was the reason for this change in the narrative? Was McDonald chased out by Mr. Mack on the wedding night due to his inability or unwillingness to find a more profitable career than that of a humble “base ball” man? Was he allowed to return when he accepted a more stable business job? We may never know. But there’s no record I can find of Joseph McDonald of Atchison, Kansas, playing baseball ever again.

RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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CC AFCmember
3 years ago

(Do not laugh at the headline. Don’t do it. )


Awwww, I couldn’t help it.

3 years ago
Reply to  CC AFC

From the sounds of it he didn’t actually never come, just came a little later than expected…the exact OPPOSITE of my experience, unfortunately.